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Jan 2006 Journal

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The AJR Journal sixty years on

A historical retrospective

Sixty years ago this month, AJR Information first appeared. That first issue, with its poor-quality paper and blurred print, now seems like a window onto a different world. But the grey and battered Britain of the post-war austerity years was also the Britain in which the Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria settled - their adopted homeland. To read the early issues of the journal is to rediscover the history of the AJR's founding years.

In its early years, AJR Information (the AJR Journal's predecessor) was only eight pages long. Its editors were Werner Rosenstock, who was to continue in post until 1982, Herbert Freeden (Friedenthal), who left for Israel in 1950, and Ernst Lowenthal, who left for Germany in 1946 to work for the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad. The paths taken by the original editors necessarily reflected the journal's principal areas of concern: Britain, the land of settlement; Germany and Austria, the principal countries of origin; and the new Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The home front

Dominating the AJR's domestic agenda was its campaign to secure the right of its members to British citizenship. In November 1945, shortly before the first appearance of AJR Information, the Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, made a statement in parliament opening the way to the naturalisation of the Jewish refugees, with certain classes of applicants for British citizenship being given priority. The front page of the journal's first issue carried a prominent welcome for the Home Secretary's statement, endorsing the principle that priority should be given to applicants for naturalisation who had served in the Forces, had contributed to the war effort in a civilian capacity, or were contributing to the national economy.

The journal followed the process of naturalisation with close attention, regularly informing its readers of the progress made. After a slow start in 1946, the official machine swung into action, and in 1947 over 10,000 applications for British citizenship from refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were granted. Given that a single application often covered several family members, this meant that by the end of 1948, when a further 7,000 applications had been granted, the bulk of the refugees had become British. In 1949 the number of applications granted to refugees from Central Europe fell to some 3,000, and thereafter to a mere trickle. The naturalisation of the former refugees had been substantially completed by 1950.

This was the cause of much satisfaction to the journal, which strongly advocated the integration of the refugees into British society. By March 1949, the journal's column 'From My Diary', written by the editors under the pseudonym 'Narrator', could afford to treat the subject with humour, a sure sign of anxieties defused. Surveying the register of aliens naturalised in 1947, the authors came across celebrities like the pianist Franz Osborn and the actor Adolf Wohlbrück, 'known as Anton Walbrook' (famous for his roles in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Red Shoes and La Ronde), as well as a battery of aristocratic 'vons', Bethmann-Hollweg, Neurath, Etzdorf, Westarp, and even, lurking 'von'-less among the commoners, a grandson of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Christoph Hohenzollern, 'known as George Mansfield'.

Commenting on the changes of name that often accompanied the acquisition of British citizenship, the article chided, tongue-in-cheek, those who took the process of anglicisation to extremes: 'Without wishing to hurt anybody's sentiments, one feels tempted to ask, whether people do not overdo the expression of their gratitude to their new country if they adopt names like Eden or Kipling, and whether names starting with "Mac" should not rather be left to Members of the Scottish Clans.'

In January 1950, the journal's regular feature on legal matters, 'Law and Life', could state with some finality that 'every refugee who applied for it and had not made himself personally objectionable to the authorities has become a British subject'. This was a notable success for the cause of the Jewish refugees in Britain.

Reporting on the Jews in Germany

The plight of the surviving Jews in Germany and, to a lesser extent, Austria, and the conditions obtaining there formed a principal focus of the journal's reports. 'I have just come from Berlin', wrote 'Narrator', a nom-de-plume used by the editors, in the first issue. 'The last time I saw her, she was a proud and arrogant city, her streets resounding with the steps of marching jackboots. I did not recognise her any more. Her glory has crumbled to dust, her monuments are obliterated, her streets have been razed to the ground and the faces of her people are grey and beaten.' A vivid picture, in those pre-television days, expressing both satisfaction at the downfall of Nazi Germany and concern for the Jews surviving amidst such destruction and need.

The journal carried regular reports on the Jews in German and Austrian towns and cities or in Displaced Persons camps like Deggendorf and Föhrenwald; in the British zone of occupation, a large number were still accommodated in the former concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. A column in the journal entitled 'Those who survived' gave details about the German-Jewish communities in various towns, their deportation to the East, the fate that had awaited them there, and the pitifully small number who returned. Then, as now, AJR members demonstrated their concern for their less fortunate fellow Jews. In early 1945 the AJR had set up its Clothing Collection Department to bring relief, in the form of donated garments, to the desperately needy Jews on the Continent, principally in Germany. By February 1945, it had despatched more than 80,000 garments to Europe and was appealing to AJR members for at least 12,000 garments per month. Ex-members of the Home Guard and the Civil Defence organisations were reminded that good use could be made of discarded uniforms, overcoats and boots.

Some of the reports reaching the AJR from German Jews who had survived the Holocaust were extremely moving. 'Dear Colleagues from Breslau', read a letter from Hanover, 'I send all my love to those of you who have worked together with me at the Jewish Hospital at Breslau. Up to now, I am the only nurse from Breslau who has returned from the Camps. With great difficulty I have gained my liberty, thanks to the British Army. Day by day, we fought for our lives, and unfortunately only very few have survived the unspeakable horrors. I am the only survivor of a family of 9 members.'

From its first issue, the journal contained a 'Missing relatives' (later 'Missing persons') column, through which subscribers could try to make contact with family members who had vanished in the Holocaust. Already from the very first of these enquiries, for Marthe Herzog from Budapest, who had been deported to Stutthof, a particularly murderous camp near Danzig, it was clear that most would remain forever unanswered. Yet the column also allowed at least one survivor to display an indomitable will to live: 'Dr Käthe Laserstein wants to inform her relatives and friends that she has survived. Her present address is Berlin-Steglitz, Immenweg 7.'

Two of the principal concerns of the Jews from Germany were restitution for material losses inflicted by the Nazis and just punishment for Nazi crimes. The first issue of AJR Information contained a weighty article by the lawyer and AJR Board member Walter Breslauer, in which he identified some of the obstacles that would bedevil attempts to secure a just system of restitution for the Jews from Germany down the decades. The journal also carried a front-page report on the proceedings at Nuremberg, whose sixtieth anniversary we also remember.

Characteristically, the journal's report set the trial of the leading Nazi war criminals against the background of German Jewry's own history, in which it always took a special interest and pride. It recalled Nuremberg's notoriety as the fiefdom of Julius Streicher, editor of the pornographically antisemitic magazine Der Stürmer, and as the site of the infamous Party rallies that had culminated in the promulgation of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws in 1935. The trials would, the journal hoped, remove the taint of Nazism that attached to the town's name: 'For all those who have been spared, the days of Nuremberg are indeed days of judgment, and the name of the town, soiled by the lowest perfidy, will be cleansed and raised to an emblem of justice.' The implication was that the trials might begin the process of the decontamination of Germany as a whole; it was, after all, the refugees' former homeland, and the ties that bound them to it often proved durable enough to survive even the crimes of the Holocaust.

Crisis in Palestine

As the voice of a substantial section of Jewry in Britain, AJR Information gave vent to the grave concern of its members about the situation in Palestine, where Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin maintained rigorous restrictions on Jewish immigration, 'in spite of the overwhelming evidence of the tragic situation of the Jewish survivors in Europe'. The establishment of a monthly immigration quota of 1,500, wholly inadequate to the number of Jews desperate to leave Europe for Palestine, was, the journal declared, 'a bitter blow to thousands of men, women and children still in the camps on the Continent, who face, insufficiently clad, nourished and housed, the terrible hardships of a winter, and whose primary hope was a speedy immigration into Palestine.'

Consequently, the journal welcomed the recommendation of the 1946 Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry on Palestine that 100,000 Jewish victims of Nazi persecution be granted admission as rapidly as possible. Combined with the recommendation that the Land Transfer Regulations of 1940 be rescinded, this would have amounted to the cancellation of the hated White Paper of 1939. The British government's refusal to accept the Commission's recommendations unconditionally 'came as a shock' to those like the AJR who had hoped for their rapid implementation; despite the journal's plea for co-operation between the mandatory power, Britain, and the Jewish Agency, it became increasingly clear that conflict could not be avoided. The decision by the government to incarcerate 'illegal' Jewish immigrants to Palestine in camps in Cyprus and the forcible prevention of 4,500 Jews aboard the vessel Exodus 1947 from landing - all powerfully reported in the journal in 1946-47 - signalled the breakdown of relations between Britain and the Jewish organisations in Palestine.

Always notable for its loyalty to Britain, the adopted homeland of its members, the AJR consistently raised its voice in favour of a peaceful compromise solution to the Palestine problem. The Association was invited to give evidence to the Commission of Inquiry; it submitted a memorandum recommending immigration to Palestine on a wide scale as the only practical means of dealing with the thousands of Jewish survivors rotting in Displaced Persons camps in Europe. The AJR was also invited to appear at the Commission's hearings. The AJR Information of March 1946 gave a vivid account of the scene in the hall of the Royal Empire Society in London, where Rabbi Leo Baeck, speaking for the refugee community, 'made a forceful plea for our people', the Jewish DPs, whose sufferings would be ended only by admission to Palestine. He was accompanied by the Chairman of the AJR, Adolf Schoyer, and its Vice-Chairman, Salomon Adler-Rudel.

Leo Baeck clung to the hope of avoiding conflict, by creating a bi-national state in Palestine where Jews and Arabs could co-exist: 'There may not be friendship between Arab committees and Zionist committees but there is friendship between Arab villages and Jewish villages, and in the end villages are more important than committees.' At this stage, the AJR was not committed to the creation of a Jewish state. Leo Baeck warned the Commission 'not to get confused by terms such as a Jewish state'. A Jewish state should be an ethical rather than a national entity: 'The idea of a Jewish state did not mean narrow nationalistic sovereignty but a significant contribution to humanity, it was a moral and a human task, every state being part of the great community of the world and every nationality being a treasure house of humanity.'

Given this primacy of moral principle - unrealistic though it may now seem - over the power-political demands of the sharpening conflict in Palestine, it was logical that AJR Information should condemn terrorist acts such as the bombing of the King David Hotel by Jewish extremists: 'A policy based on violence is alien to Judaism, opposed to our ethical conception of a Jewish National Home and objectionable even from the point of view of practical expediency.' Recalling the German and Austrian Jews' own experience of Nazi terror, it declared: 'We know what terror means. We condemn terror in whatever form it may appear and whoever may exercise it. For us there is no compromise with violence.' In the end, of course, the hopes of a peaceful compromise under British supervision proved illusory. When in 1948 the state of Israel was proclaimed, AJR Information acclaimed it as a historical development. The journal has been a solid supporter of the Jewish state ever since.
Anthony Grenville

next article:Making a New Life: Holocaust survivors and photographs